Indian cyclist Vedangi Kulkarni set a new time record by covering the famous Himalayan route in two days. That’s how she did it
Six years ago, Vedangi Kulkarni set out on his first cycling adventure, soloing some 471 km from Manali to Leh, before continuing on to Drass. The heady height and distance from her had her hooked. She was only 17 years old. She realized how far she could go with a modest pair of wheels. Two years later, Kulkarni, who lives in Scotland, circumnavigated the world in 159 days, only the fourth woman, other than the youngest, to accomplish the feat. Soon her life revolved around cycling. When her mentor, cyclist Sumit Patil, suggested that she ride the Manali-Leh highway again, she knew she had to.
“summit dad he proposed the idea of aiming for the record for the fastest time in this section. It made sense to go back to where it all started for me,” he says. And on June 15, Kulkarni, who is now 24 years old, finished the project in 2 days, 3 hours and 49 minutes. He had beaten the previous mark by more than three hours; the timing is currently being ratified by Guinness World Records. The journey had been demanding at times, forcing her to dig deeper. She reminded him why she had been drawn to these feats of endurance, ever since that first trip.
“No matter what discipline of cycling I am involved in today or at what level I am doing it, I feel at home in the saddle. I think all my experiences have made me brave and resilient,” she says. He arrived in Leh on May 9 and, once he acclimatized to the altitude, he began to cycle an average of 300 to 500 km per week around the city on his city bike.
He rode to Khardung La (5,359 metres), a drop of about 2,000 metres, and up to Upshi in the longest race over 100km. Much of the specific training was done on an indoor trainer, where he focused on increasing his cadence. “The idea was to make it easier on the muscles during climbs. But training indoors is not my thing at all; I prefer cycling outdoors,” he says.
Kulkarni also focused on her nutrition and recovery, something she has fallen short of on multiple trips in the past. All the while, she kept one eye on the weather, waiting for any news of the opening of the Manali-Leh highway. “I pretty much sat through the whole of May going over the forecast. I had other commitments in mid-June, so everything was ready by the time my opportunity finally came,” she says.
At 2 am on June 13, Kulkarni set off from Mall Road in Manali. The ascent to Rohtang La (3,978m), the first of five high passes he would encounter on the way, was exhilarating. But he soon realized the dire road conditions ahead, especially since the road had just opened after a late winter. “Between Patsio and Zingzing Bar, there was a section that literally had a river flowing through it. I had to take off my shoes and socks, and carry my bike to get through,” he recalls.
The climb to Baralacha La seemed endless, and the only relief was the sighting of a magnificent Himalayan wolf. A bumpy descent through towering walls of snow finally brought her to Bharatpur, where she settled in for an hour’s rest to sleep. The entire time, Kulkarni was cared for by a team of four that included Patil and Kulkarni’s father, Vivek.
“Since I don’t take nutrition very seriously, they kept feeding me everything from lychees to paranthas and chips and chocolate bars, which is exactly what you want on a trip like this. They even ran next to me during times when I was sleepy. It was overwhelming to see these people take time out of their busy lives to be there for me,” she says.
After passing Sarchu in sub-zero temperatures, he took the Gata Loops, where the road climbs up to the Naki La pass in a series of 22 hairpin bends. It’s the kind of terrain Kulkarni thrives on and she climbed the climb as if she had a fresh pair of legs.
A jarring descent on a dirt track from Naki La forced a rest at Pang that was longer than usual. He soon climbed the Morey Plains and by the time he reached the base of Tanglang La, the final pass before descending into the Indus Valley, it was getting dark. As the ascent unfolded, the crew had doubts about whether they were going to make it to the top of the pass.
“For the last 10km of the climb, I was falling asleep on the bike. And I would get really nauseous every time I tried to eat something. Fatigue had caught up with me and I was hallucinating that a pack of dogs was chasing me: my worst nightmare”. A journey that Kulkarni should have taken less than an hour to complete, took two and a half hours instead. After crossing the pass, Kulkarni was close to him as his bike skidded on black ice and came to a halt quite close to the edge. He snapped her out of her daze.
“There was so much drama and I had wasted too much time. I told myself that I had a record to chase and that I was strong enough to do it. I decided to enjoy the remaining distance. She was a different me for the last 100 km,” she recalls. Although the sun had already risen, the city was still waking from its slumber when Kulkarni registered in Leh. He knew she could have been faster, but there was only a feeling of gratitude once his bike came to a stop. “We hardly rode this time because of the weather. So I was lucky to finish this incredible route without major problems”, he says. And, of course, get the registration against his name.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.